The owners and operators of food trucks in Columbus feel as if they are regulated by anecdote, alleged precedent and even seeming whim.
Employing their own anecdotes to complain about inconsistent and uneven enforcement of rules, roughly a dozen or so food-truck folks turned out last week for a citywide forum convened by several members of the Clintonville Area Commission at the Charity Newsies building on Indianola Avenue.
"Tonight, what we're trying to accomplish is open up a dialogue," James R. Blazer, who represents the CAC's District 3, said in opening the gathering. "We don't anticipate that we'll solve anything."
But some of the issues food-truck owners raised may be on their way to getting resolved, or at least addressed.
City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. and Assistant City Attorney City Attorney Steve Dunbar were both on hand and took notes on what the food-truck operators said.
"As the city's lawyer, I want our laws to be clear, and we don't want our employees making up laws," Pfeiffer said.
Panel member Kelly Dodd, coordinator of the mobile food program for Columbus Public Health, announced she would seek to meet with representatives from every governmental entity that has anything to do with regular food trucks in order to produce a pamphlet outlining all the procedures necessary to license such an enterprise.
That way, people won't encounter any last-minute surprises such as the one that nearly put Mojo Tago out of business before it had even officially opened. Founder and manager Brian Reed, an Ohio State University graduate who turned to the food truck when commercial real estate tanked, said when he first started back in 2010, he obtained every license he was told was required. His first day of operation was to be on an OSU football game day, and he made arrangements with a bed and breakfast to set up his truck, offering a percentage of sales in return for using empty vendor space.
Reed said he stayed up for 24 hours prepping food in advance, only to have someone from the state fire marshal's office threaten to shut him down before he even opened up because Mojo Tago lacked a special-events permit.
"It came really close to being a bad day," Reed told forum attendees.
Eventually, Reed said, he and the fire marshal "made nice" and he was allowed to open after explaining just how much food he would have had to throw away.
Panelist Jim Ellison of the Economic and Community Development Institute, a Clintonville resident since 1970 and free-lance food writer for the past 20 years, related an incident in which his organization was asked by officials with Experience Columbus to provide food trucks at the Greater Columbus Convention Center on a Monday so attendees at a conference would have more dining options.
City personnel declined to allow food-truck operators to pay a fee and park in front of bagged meters, with the result that only three showed up and were forced to set up well away from the convention center, Ellison said. The trucks each had only 10 customers all day, while the food court inside the convention center saw long lines -- something Experience Columbus officials were seeking to prevent, he added.
"I've been run out of everywhere up and down High Street," said Jamie Anderson, owner of Ray Ray's Hog Pit. "They hate trailers, the city."
Michael Newman, whose wife runs the eggs-and-poultry themed The Coop mobile food business, said a code enforcement officer, responding to a resident's complaint, has forced her to work four more hours each day in order to tear down and set up the business. Newman said a "precedent," not an actual regulation, was cited as the reason food trucks may not remain in one location for more than 24 hours.
"It's clear to me that the ambiguity of the law is killing these businesses," said Ian MacConnell, former University District Area Commission president and now a Clintonville resident.
"I think what we're all taking about is some consistency," Blazer said.
Dodd estimated Columbus Public Health has issued licenses to between 300 and 400 food trucks.
"The popularity of this has taken off nationwide," Blazer said. "Now you see it whatever city you go to."
"What we're hearing from everyone is, 'Where can we park, where can we not park?'" said Jim Pashovich, president of Pitabilities. "What we don't want and what the city doesn't want to see is chaos. We want to work with the city in creating those rules."
Reed and Pashovich both wore Central Ohio Food Truck Association T-shirts at the meeting. It's an organization without, so far, any members, Reed said, but their goal in founding COFTA is to "advocate, communicate and educate," according to its Facebook page.
Both Blazer and District 1 CAC representative Rob Wood said they hope to hold another food-truck forum in about two months to revisit some of the issues raised last week.